Neoliberalism

political philosophy that supports economic liberalization

Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism is the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism and free market capitalism.

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  • Since the mid-1970s, neoliberal economic policies have increasingly pervaded rich democracies. A list of such policies would include the following: enacting international trade agreements that strongly favor capital interests and constrain democratic policy making; deregulating markets (especially in the financial sector); tightening bankruptcy regulations and imposing harsher policies toward individual and state debtors; enhancing intellectual property protections; cutting taxes (especially on top incomes, capital income, and inheritance); retrenching the welfare state (especially replacing cash benefits with benefits conditioned on work); weakening antitrust enforcement; assaulting labor unions and laws protecting workers; reducing workers' pensions; delegating labor and trade disputes to private arbitrators; outsourcing public functions to private enterprise; and replacing Keynesian economic policies oriented to full employment with fiscal austerity. Taken together, these policies have had three principal effects. First, they have increased economic inequality and shifted the distribution of income from labor to capital, leading to stagnant wages for lower-tier workers, even as productivity has grown. Second, these policies have also constrained and undermined democracy, reducing its ability to respond to the needs and interests of ordinary people . . . Third, neoliberal policies have shifted economic and political power to private businesses, executives, and the very rich. More and more, these organizations and individuals govern everyone else.
  • Did it have to come to this? The paradox is that when Europe was less united, it was in many ways more independent. The leaders who ruled in the early stages of integration had all been formed in a world before the global hegemony of the United States, when the major European states were themselves imperial powers, whose foreign policies were self-determined. These were people who had lived through the disasters of the Second World War, but were not crushed by them. This was true not just of a figure like De Gaulle, but of Adenauer and Mollet, of Eden and Heath, all of whom were quite prepared to ignore or defy America if their ambitions demanded it. Monnet, who did not accept their national assumptions, and never clashed with the US, still shared their sense of a future in which Europeans could settle their own affairs, in another fashion. Down into the 1970s, something of this spirit lived on even in Giscard and Schmidt, as Carter discovered. But with the neo-liberal turn of the 1980s, and the arrival in power in the 1990s of a postwar generation, it faded. The new economic doctrines cast doubt on the state as a political agent, and the new leaders had never known anything except the Pax Americana. The traditional springs of autonomy were gone.
    • Perry Anderson, "Depicting Europe", London Review of Books (20 September 2007)
  • The termination of the Bretton Woods financial system and the collapse of the Soviet Union followed in the wake of centuries of capital-driven globalization. Neoliberal capitalism has become the new paradigm of permanent growth. The implications of the neoliberal stage of capitalist marketization are enormous, as capitalism universalizes its rule, throws off "superfluous" and "injurious" constraints on "free trade," and increasingly realizes the goal of purity of function and purpose through the autonomization of the economy from society, so that the social is the economic. Over the last few decades, Takis Fotopoulos notes, "A neoliberal consensus has swept over the advanced capitalist world and has replaced the social-democratic consensus of the early post-war period." Not only have "existing socialist societies" been negated in the global triumph of capitalism, so too have social democracies and the bulk of institutional networks designed to protect individuals from the ravages of privatization and the relinquishment of responsibilities to people in need to case them into barbaric barrenness of the "survival-of-the-fittest."
    • Steven Best, "Introduction: Pathologies of Power and the Rise of the Global Industrial Complex", in Steven Best; Richard Kahn; Anthony J. Nocella II; Peter McLaren (eds.). The Global Industrial Complex: Systems of Domination. 2011. p. xviii
  • The scale of the plague is surprising, indeed shocking, but not its appearance. Nor the fact that the U.S. has the worst record in responding to the crisis. Scientists have been warning of a pandemic for years. [...] But scientific understanding is not enough. There has to be someone to pick up the ball and run with it. That option was barred by the pathology of the contemporary socioeconomic order. Market signals were clear: There’s no profit in preventing a future catastrophe. The government could have stepped in, but that’s barred by reigning doctrine: "Government is the problem," Reagan told us with his sunny smile, meaning that decision-making has to be handed over even more fully to the business world, which is devoted to private profit and is free from influence by those who might be concerned with the common good. The years that followed injected a dose of neoliberal brutality to the unconstrained capitalist order and the twisted form of markets it constructs.
  • The U.S.'s privatized for-profit health care system had long been an international scandal, with twice the per capita expenses of other developed societies and some of the worst outcomes. Neoliberal doctrine struck another blow, introducing business measures of efficiency: just-on-time service with no fat in the system. Any disruption and the system collapses. This is the world that Trump inherited, the target of his battering ram. [...] It seems that many Americans would prefer to spend more money as long as it doesn't go to taxes (incidentally killing tens of thousands of people annually). That’s a telling indication of the state of American democracy, as people experience it; and from another perspective, of the force of the doctrinal system crafted by business power and its intellectual servants. The neoliberal assault has intensified this pathological element of the national culture, but the roots go much deeper and are illustrated in many ways, a topic very much worth pursuing.
  • In the West, I think a large part of what’s happening, a very large part, is the bitter, savage, class war that’s been conducted for the last 40 years. It’s called neoliberalism. It even has rhetoric about markets and so on. But that’s widely misleading. It’s basically savage class war. And it was understood by the leaders. It starts with Reagan and Thatcher. Their first moves in office were to attack, undermine the labor movement, opening the door for the corporate sector to enter with illegal strike-breaking efforts, organization efforts tolerated by the criminal state. That made sense. If you’re going to carry out a bitter, savage class war, better eliminate all the means of defense.
  • And it’s gone on for the United States. We have measures of it. I’m sure you know that the Rand Corporation about a year ago came out with an estimate that about $50 trillion – That’s not pennies – $50 trillion had been transferred to the pockets of the top 1%, or to a fraction of them, mostly in the last 40 years of class war. Meanwhile, real wages have stagnated, and for mail workers, benefits have collapsed.
  • Neoliberalism designates a particular strategy of class domination that uses the state to promote certain competitive dynamics for the benefit of the very rich. In Duménil's and Lévy's words, "Neoliberalism is a new stage of capitalism that emerged in the wake of the structural crisis of the 1970s. It expresses the strategy of the capitalist classes in alliance with upper management, specifically financial managers, intending to strengthen their hegemony and expand it globally." Less a strategy for production than for the transfer of wealth to the very rich, neoliberalism places the "need of money . . . over those of production." Pursued through policies of privatization, deregulation, and financialization, and buttressed by an ideology of private property, free markets, and free trade, neoliberalism has entailed cuts in taxes for the rich and cuts in protections and benefits for workers and the poor, resulting in an exponential increase in inequality.
  • We have preserved social security and the welfare state, but at the expense of employment. Neo-liberalism, which put the emphasis on the market, manifested itself in Europe by the policies led by Margaret Thatcher, who sometimes had good reasons to prise off the shackles which were condemning British society to decline. But [Thatcherite policies] fell into an excess of laissez faire.
    • Jacques Delors, L'Unité d'un Homme (November 1994), quoted in The Times (21 November 1994), p. 11
  • The major capitalist countries faced a stark choice: deepen socialistic reform, public ownership and initiative, and invest in the still growing Third World to expand demand so as to keep growth going or, as the neoliberals in their think tanks bankrolled by capital and some politicians already converted to the new creed recommended, lift postwar restrictions on capital, now blamed for the growth slowdown, at home and campaign to lift them abroad. The former favoured working people the world over while the latter favoured capital and its comprador allies in the Third World. Capital won. Though union density and the political strength of the historic parties of labour and the left were at historic highs, the left was intellectually too weak to present viable alternatives. Over the post-war decades, non-Communist working class parties and organisations in the major capitalist countries ‘had no economic policy of their own’ and had focused only on ‘improving the condi- tions of their working-class constituencies’ through reliance ‘on a strong wealth- creating capitalist economy to finance their aims’ (Hobsbawm 1994, 272).
  • The United States’ attempt to prolong the life of capitalism over the last century went through its phase of jeopardy during the Long Boom, where it was endangered by circumstances arising from a world of popular empowerment whose leading edge was Communism. It then entered its phase of futility under neoliberalism, as neoliberal policies failed to revive capitalism’s productive economy, financialising it instead and the capitalist world, led by the leading neoliberal countries, lost its centrality to the world economy. With the pandemic followed by the proxy war against Russia and the New Cold War against China, it appears to have entered a phase of perversity, where its efforts to extend capitalism’s life and hold on the world are proving counterproductive.
  • The one on the right concerned the shift from an older understanding of economic liberalism to what is now called "neoliberalism." Neoliberalism is not... a synonym for capitalism. I don't see how you can have any kind of modern economy without a market based economy. Neoliberalism took that basic insight and stretched it to an extreme seeking to deregulate, privatize and basically pull back the role of the state, which many neoliberals regarded as simply obstacles to individuals, to entrepreneurship, to economic growth, and as a result markets did their usual work. They produced a great deal of inequality, as... global corporations searched for very small cost advantages by moving jobs to low cost areas... [T]hey destabilized the global economy in certain important ways by deregulating the financial sector. As a result of the deregulation that occurred in the 1980s and 90s we had an escalating series of financial crises. In the sterling crisis, the Asian financial crisis, Argentina, Russia, and finally culminating in the big American subprime crisis in 2008. The... cumulative effects of this instability were political and they were very serious because many ordinary people were hurt... a lot of people lost their homes, lost their jobs, and the elites that ran these big banks and financial institutions suffered only a momentary disruption in their incomes, and went on to continue to dominate their respective economies... [T]his had a direct impact on the rise of populism in subsequent years, both on the right and on the left.
  • What neoliberalism has done since the 1970s is it has created such economic misery, it has so accentuated levels of inequality, it has created such suffering, it has dismantled entire towns, it has concentrated wealth in the hands of the financial elite, and it has legitimated an enormous culture of cruelty. And it operates off the assumption that the market can solve all problems — not simply in the economy, but in all of social life — so it becomes a template and a model for all social relations. In doing so, it is at odds with any notion of the welfare state, any notion of labor unions, any notion of workers’ rights, and any notion of economic rights. It privatizes, deregulates, and commodifies everything. It sets up a series of competitive attitudes that degrades collaboration. It highlights self-interest at the expense of modes of solidarity. It so accentuates matters of inequitable relations in wealth and power that you have an enormous concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the financial elite, and this is enacted by all kinds of policies that undermine the foundations of a democracy — all of its basic institutions, from the press, to public goods such as schools and media, to politics itself.
  • Money drives politics. We all know that now. But the other side of this is that it's not just an economic system, it’s also an ideological system. As an ideological system, what it generally does is three things that are pernicious and which set the groundwork for a kind of right-wing populism and a fascist politics. First, it operates off the assumption that all social problems are individual problems. Therefore whatever problems people face, the blame for those problems rests with themselves — whether we’re talking about ecological disasters, about poverty, about homelessness, about ignorance and illiteracy, and so forth and so on. Secondly, in doing so it tends to depoliticize people, and by depoliticizing them it becomes very difficult for people — operating under that notion of self-interest, a brutal form of competition, and this heightened notion of rugged individualism — to translate private troubles into larger systemic issues. Hence they find it very hard to understand the conditions in which they find themselves. Thirdly, it creates an enormous culture of ignorance.
  • "Slow violence" refers to our public schools being increasingly defunded, transformed into machines for teaching to the test, and reimagined not as democratic public spheres designed to produced critical citizens, but workers willing to put up with boring work and labor abuses. As they’re increasingly defunded, it's then claimed that they’re failing, and that then becomes an excuse to either privatize them or turn them over to charter schools. In a sense what you have here is a central element of neoliberal ideology, which is an attack on the public good, an attack on any institution that supports the public good, and an attack on forms of pedagogy that teach students about the past, critical thinking, and provide them with the tools for informed decisions and engaged dialogue. In that sense, schools are a prime target
  • One of the things that neoliberalism has done is it has taken notions that are really powerful and turned them around, basically hijacking them in ways that produce misery and suffering. Freedom doesn’t simply mean ‘freedom from’ in the traditional sense of the word, it also means the ‘freedom to’ do more than just survive or wallow in your own orbits of privatization. It means that you not only have political freedoms and individual freedoms — you have economic freedoms, and social freedoms. You cannot live in a society and believe in elections (if you believe in that myth), or believe in being an agent, or believe that you can have power, or believe that you can influence events, if you’re hungry all of the time, if you have to make a choice between medicine and food, if time is no longer a luxury but it basically incapacitates you by virtue of not having the time to do anything to develop the capacities that would allow us to be political, social, and economic agents. Freedom has been utterly distorted under this authoritarian neoliberal machine because it is a notion of freedom that has been regressively individualized and refuses to acknowledge that you cannot talk about choices without at the same time talking about constraints, whether they be economic, political, or social.
  • The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, unfolding around the world as I write these words, will likely be remembered as an epochal shift. [...] Already, in the state of emergency that the crisis has unleashed, we are seeing extraordinary measures emerge that reveal that much of the neoliberal regime’s claims to necessity and austerity were transparent lies. The God-like market has fallen, again. In different places a variety of measures are being introduced that would have been unimaginable even weeks ago. These have included the suspension of rents and mortgages, the free provision of public transit, the deployment of basic incomes, a hiatus in debt payments, the commandeering of privatized hospitals and other once-public infrastructure for the public good, the liberation of incarcerated people, and governments compelling private industries to reorient production to common needs. We hear news of significant numbers of people refusing to work, taking wildcat labor action, and demanding their right to live in radical ways. In some places, the underhoused are seizing vacant homes. We are discovering, against the upside-down capitalist value paradigm which has enriched the few at the expense of the many, whose labor is truly valuable: care, service, and frontline public sector workers. There has been a proliferation of grassroots radical demands for policies of care and solidarity not only as emergency measures, but in perpetuity. Right-wing and capitalist think-tanks are panicking, fearful that half a century of careful ideological work to convince us of the necessity of neoliberalism ⁠— the transformation of our very souls ⁠— will be dispelled in the coming weeks and months. The sweet taste of freedom ⁠— real, interdependent freedom, not the lonely freedom of the market ⁠— lingers on the palate like a long-forgotten memory, but quickly turns bitter when its nectar is withdrawn. If we do not defend these material and spiritual gains, capitalism will come for its revenge.
  • I am a capitalist, and after a 30-year career in capitalism... I'm not just in the top one percent, I'm in the top .01 percent of all earners. Today, I have come to share the secrets of our success, because rich capitalists like me have never been richer... How do we manage to grab an ever-increasing share of the economic pie every year? ... here's the dirty secret. There was a time in which the economics profession worked in the public interest, but in the neoliberal era, today, they work only for big corporations and billionaires... We could choose to enact economic policies that raise taxes on the rich, regulate powerful corporations or raise wages for workers... But neoliberal economists would warn that all of these policies would be a terrible mistake, because raising taxes always kills economic growth, and any form of government regulation is inefficient, and raising wages always kills jobs.
    Well, as a consequence of that thinking, over the last 30 years, in the USA alone, the top one percent has grown 21 trillion dollars richer while the bottom 50 percent have grown 900 billion dollars poorer, a pattern of widening inequality that has largely repeated itself across the world. And yet, as middle class families struggle to get by on wages that have not budged in about 40 years, neoliberal economists continue to warn that the only reasonable response to the painful dislocations of austerity and globalization is even more austerity and globalization.
  • The purpose of the corporation is not merely to enrich shareholders. The greatest grift in contemporary economic life is the neoliberal idea that the only purpose of the corporation and the only responsibility of executives is to enrich themselves and shareholders. The new economics must and can insist that the purpose of the corporation is to improve the welfare of all stakeholders: customers, workers, community and shareholders alike.
    Greed is not good. Being rapacious doesn't make you a capitalist, it makes you a sociopath. And in an economy as dependent upon cooperation at scale as ours, sociopathy is as bad for business as it is for society.... Neoliberal economic theory has sold itself to you as unchangeable natural law, when in fact it's social norms and constructed narratives based on pseudoscience.
  • Neoliberalism as economic theory was always an absurdity. It had as much validity as past ruling ideologies such as the divine right of kings and fascism’s belief in the Übermensch. None of its vaunted promises were even remotely possible. Concentrating wealth in the hands of a global oligarchic elite—eight families now hold as much wealth as 50 percent of the world’s population—while demolishing government controls and regulations always creates massive income inequality and monopoly power, fuels political extremism and destroys democracy. You do not need to slog through the 577 pages of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” to figure this out. But economic rationality was never the point. The point was the restoration of class power.
  • A contradiction lies at the very centre of the neoliberal project. On a theoretical level, neoliberalism promises to bring about a purer form of democracy, unsullied by the tyranny of the state. Indeed, this claim serves as the model lodestar for neoliberal ideology - a banner under which it justifies radical market deregulation. But, in practice, it becomes clear that the opposite is true: that neoliberalism tends to undermine democracy and political freedom. More than 40 years of experimentation with neoliberalism shows that it erodes the power of voters to decide the rules that govern the economic systems they inhabit. It allows for the colonization of political forums by elite interests - a process known as political capture - and sets up new political forums, such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO, that preclude democratic representation from the outset. Neoliberalism also tends to undermine national sovereignty, to the point where parliaments of putatively independent nations no longer have power over their own policy decisions, but are governed instead by foreign banks, the US Treasury, trade agreements, and undemocratic international institutions, all of which exercise a kind of invisible, remote-control power.
  • People commonly think of neoliberalism as an ideology that promotes totally free markets, where the state retreats from the scene and abandons all interventionist policies. But if we step back a bit, it becomes clear that the extention of neoliberalism has entailed powerful new forms of state intervention. The creation of a global 'free market' required not only violent coups and dictatorships backed by Western governments, but also the invention of a totalizing global bureaucracy – the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO and bilateral free-trade agreements – with reams of new laws, backed up by the military power of the United States. In other words, an unprecedented expansion of state power was necessary to force countries around the world to liberalize their markets against their will. As the global south has known ever since the Opium Wars in 1842, when British gunboats invaded China in order to knock down China's trade barriers, free trade has never actually been about freedom. On the contrary, as we have seen, free trade has a tendency to gradually undermine national sovereignty and electoral democracy.
    • Jason Hickel, The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets (2018) p. 218
  • Some people have the tendency to think of neoliberalism as a mistake – an overtly-extreme version of capitalism that we should reject in favor of returning to the somewhat more humane version that prevailed in prior decades. But the shift to neoliberalism was not a mistake; it was driven by the growth imperative. In order to restore the rate of profit and keep capitalism afloat, governments had to shift away from social objectives (use-values) to focus instead on improving the conditions for capital accumulation (exchange-value). The interests of capital came to be internalized by the state, to the point where today the distinction between growth and capital accumulation has almost completely collapsed. Now the goal is to tear down barriers to profit – to make humans and nature cheaper – for the sake of growth.
    • Jason Hickel, Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (2021), p. 95
  • Neoliberalism, despite the claim by its adherents that it was simply an economic theory, was from its beginnings a class project articulated on behalf of the interests of capital.
  • The central claim of today’s neoliberal economic orthodoxy is that all problems are caused by labor being too greedy, and putting its own living standards above the ideal of creating a wealthy rentier class to lord it over them. The aim of cutting back credit is to reduce employment by bringing on a new recession, there by rolling wages back – and also making working conditions much harsher, blocking labor unionization, and cutting back public programs on social spending.
  • [Securing] resources for large-scale economic transformational change [...] can be achieved by a government committed to subordinating markets in money, goods and services to regulatory democracy [...]. 'Free-market' neoliberal economic policies that detach markets from society's oversight achieve the reverse. They are designed to subject markets to private, not public, democratic authority.
  • In the 36 years of neoliberal politics, they sold off the public companies, the nation’s banks, the railroads, the mines, the ports, the airports. They also carried out privatization of the electricity and oil industries. And they didn’t stop, not even in relation to education and healthcare. The so-called structural reforms aimed to put education and healthcare on the market, as if they were goods for sale, with the goal so that those who wanted to study or get medical attention had to pay. Fortunately, the people said ‘Enough!’, and, in a democratic way, decided to change these politics and carry out a transformation. Also to confront the tremendous decay that we suffered. The corruption brought about a process of gradual degradation in all of the fields of public life.
  • The very concept of collective responsibility for human well-being is under attack by neo-liberalism all over the world.
    • Elizabeth Martinez "IMMIGRANT BASHING ON THE RISE 1990-1994" in De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998 and 2017)
  • In short, "neoliberalism" is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.
  • By the mid-twentieth century, elites had to find ways to surmount the natural limitations to the basic and destructive imperative of the capitalist system—the imperative for unending growth and expansion—in order to continue the accumulation of vast wealth. They turned to the ideology of neoliberalism in a renewed drive for laissez-faire policies, in which government largely withdraws from "interfering" with the economy, leading to nearly unrestrained profit-taking. While capitalists were able to fend off or minimize government interventions proposed to create or improve the quality of life for countless humans, they were quite focused putting the power of the state to work to aggressively protect and advance their interests (i.e., "corporate welfare"). Through deregulation, tax breaks and the squandering of taxpayer dollars, large corporations and elites have flourished while masses around the world face harsh austerity programs. And in the United States, enormous public resources are diverted into the military-industrial complex and twenty-first century invasions and warfare.
    • David Nibert, Animal Oppression and Capitalism. (2017) p. xvi
  • Just as in the 1930s, world capitalism, as it had existed until then, had reached a dead-end, and the need for it to be altered for the sake of preserving the system itself, was emphasised by many perceptive bourgeois thinkers, exactly in a similar manner contemporary world capitalism too has reached a dead-end and cannot continue as before. [...] The ruling formation in India, however, is totally oblivious of the world conjuncture. The dead-end of neo-liberalism, which is visible to even bourgeois thinkers in the metropolis, is invisible to our Hindutva brigade. Not only is the Modi government still wedded to the neo-liberal agenda in general, but it has not even deviated from this agenda in the midst of the acute humanitarian crisis unleashed by the pandemic and its own mindless response to it. [...] But following the same track as was being followed in the "last four decades" and not recognising the dead-end of neo-liberalism, also means remaining stuck in that dead-end, which in turn would mean even greater recourse to authoritarian-fascistic measures and even more odious attempts to promote a communal divide. The working people will have to struggle against this entire endeavour and to show the way out of the dead-end of neo-liberalism.
  • The idea of the rule of law lies at the heart of the neo-liberal view of the nature and role of the state. More than this, however, it is the deep fault line that divides neo-liberalism and social democracy and, for that matter, more radical forms of socialism. On the neo-liberal view social democracy and socialism are outside the rule of law. On the face of it, this might seem to be rather an arcane point.
    • Raymond Plant, The Neo-liberal State (2010), p. 5
  • Despite powerful mobilizations that brought them to power, the progressive administrations in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela discovered that structural constraints closed off the possibilities for systemic change. Two decades of neoliberalism had so transformed the class structure of these countries that the social base of Pink Tide governments, while militant, had little economic leverage against capital. Backed primarily by workers in the informal economy and marginalized communities, left-wing governments simply lacked the leverage to challenge ruling classes.
  • This response was surprising not only because of its scale but also because it contradicted the conventional narrative of economic history since the 1970s. The decades prior to the crisis had been dominated by the idea of a “market revolution” and the rollback of state interventionism. Government and regulation continued, of course, but they were delegated to “independent” agencies, emblematically the “independent central banks,” whose job was to ensure discipline, regularity and predictability. Politics and discretionary action were the enemies of good governance. The balance of power was hardwired into the normality of the new regime of deflationary globalization, what Ben Bernanke euphemistically referred to as the “great moderation.” The question that hung over the dispensation of “neoliberalism” was whether the same rules applied to everyone or whether the truth was that there were rules for some and discretion for others. The events of 2008 massively confirmed the suspicion raised by America’s selective interventions in the emerging market crises of the 1990s and following the dot-com crisis of the early 2000s. In fact, neoliberalism’s regime of restraint and discipline operated under a proviso. In the event of a major financial crisis that threatened “systemic” interests, it turned out that we lived in an age not of limited but of big government, of massive executive action, of interventionism that had more in common with military operations or emergency medicine than with law-bound governance. And this revealed an essential but disconcerting truth, the repression of which had shaped the entire development of economic policy since the 1970s. The foundations of the modern monetary system are irreducibly political.
    • Adam Tooze Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (2018)
  • My third thesis is that the meshing of workfare and prisonfare partakes of the making of the neoliberal state. Economists have propounded a conception of neoliberalism that equates it with the rule of the “free market” and the coming of “small government” and, by and large, other social scientists have adopted that conception. The problem is that it captures the ideology of neoliberalism, not its reality. The comparative sociology of actually existing neoliberalism reveals that it involves everywhere the building of an erection of a Centaur-state, liberal at the top and paternalistic at the bottom. Then neoliberal Leviathan practices laissez faire et laissez passer toward corporations and the upper class, at the level of the causes of inequality. But it is fiercely interventionist and authoritarian when it comes to dealing with the destructive consequences of economic deregulation for those at the lower end of the class and status spectrum. This is because the imposition of market discipline is not a smooth, self-propelling process, it meets with recalcitrance and triggers resistance; it translates into diffusing social instability and turbulence among the lower class; and it practically undermines the authority of the state. So it requires institutional contraptions that will anchor and support it, among them an enlarged and energetic penal institution.
  • The alliance’s expansion coincided with the creeping spread of neoliberalism, helping secure the dominance of U.S. financial capital and sustain the rapacious military-industrial complex that underpins much of its economy and society.
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